UNDERPINNING the grassfed beef metamorphosis has been the idea that livestock that are grazed are good for the environment but an international research collaboration has turned that on its head.
Grassfed steak is no climate change free lunch, say the authors of a just-released report called Grazed and Confused, which has been two years in the making.
The researchers do make two important caveats, however: It does not follow that intensive production systems offer a better alternative. Also, there are many other social, ethical, economic and environmental issues that play into the concept of sustainability.
Written by a team of climate change experts headed up by Dr Tara Garnett at Oxford University’s Food Climate Research Network in England and Cecile Godde at Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO, the report concludes grass-fed livestock does not offer a significant solution to climate change as only under very specific conditions can they help sequester carbon.
This sequestering of carbon is even then small, time-limited, reversible and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions grazing animals generate.
The report concludes that although there can be other benefits to grazing livestock, solving climate change isn’t one of them.
Ms Godde said it has been established around 14.5 per cent of human-related GHG emissions come from livestock and 11.6pc from ruminants - cattle, sheep and goats.
“However, both consumers and policymakers have a much looser grasp on the impact of grass-fed beef,” she said.
“The role ruminants in grazing systems may play in generating, and mitigating, climate change is the subject of much debate - debates that are often highly polarised and themselves reflect deeper ideological or economic interests.
“At its most extreme, we see an opposition between those who view grazing ruminants as the cause of most of our planetary woes, and those who believe the exact opposite, arguing that carbon sequestration from grazing systems could potentially offset all livestock emissions, and perhaps even help solve the problem of climate change.
“Of course most people do not hold these extreme views but many, including those with influence, are somewhat confused.”
The report found climate-neutral grazing systems in which emissions are offset by carbon sequestration do exist but were the exception rather than the norm.
“Leaving aside any scope for sequestering carbon in soil, it is imperative that we keep carbon in the ground by halting grasslands degradation, conversion to croplands and further natural land clearance for farmland as carbon can be lost much faster than it can be accumulated in soil,” Ms Godde explained.
“Grassland soils contain vast carbon stores worldwide, and can provide an economic reason for keeping the carbon in the ground.”
The researchers were adamant their work was not a comparative assessment of different livestock production systems or animal types.
“We look at grazing systems and consider their role in the net GHG balance because this is an area of contestation,” Ms Godde said.
“In concluding that, in aggregate, they contribute more emissions than they remove, we are not therefore concluding that intensive systems are to be preferred or that they are somehow less problematic.”
Indeed, the report notes: “All food production has damaging impacts, as compared with a baseline of no human presence on the planet.”
Ms Godde said there were plenty more areas to explore if one was to arrive at an informed and rounded conclusion about the merits or otherwise of grass-fed livestock and grazing systems for overall sustainability
“Since the greenhouse gas question is difficult enough as it is, we confined our analysis only to this. This is not to deny the importance of other issues,” she said.
It seemed like the aspects of sustainability being considered by general society were changing over time, she said.
“There have been strong debates around animal welfare quite widely picked up by media,” she said.
“There has also been quite a lot of discussion around the impact of beef on deforestation.
“However, as we progress through the years and as awareness of climate change is raising, the climate facet of sustainability is getting more and more attention.
“We agree it’s important not to conflate climate and sustainability, but it’s also the case that ideas about sustainability vary from stakeholder to stakeholder. Some include economic aspects as well as broader social and ethical concerns.”
In Australia, the concept of sustainability increasingly influenced food consumption choices, as attested by the marketing strategies implemented in supermarkets, Ms Godde said.
“For the UK, animal welfare is traditionally an important factor in people’s food choices.
“Environmental considerations usually come fairly low down people’s list of concerns although they’re important for a minority subsection of the population.
“Obviously what people state to be important in surveys may be different from how people actually shop, particularly when there is a price differential involved.”
Asked what message researchers hoped to deliver to the world’s beef industry, Ms Godde said: “All livestock systems are net contributors to climate change. It’s important that the sector achieves absolute decreases in GHG emissions.
“However, it is also important to do this in ways that take account of other important aspects including animal welfare, people’s livelihoods and jobs, biodiversity, nutrition and food security and more.”